When I meet new people and tell them I took a year off before college, they often think I took a gap year adventure around the world (later fueling my love for travel). To avoid further detail and darkening their day with my health-related sob story, I let them know I was unable to travel at that time and change the subject.
The truth is, my year off before heading to Boston University was a little different than your average year off. Instead of a gap year, I spent most of my “sick year” treating Lupus Nephritis with chemotherapy -- staying indoors or at the doctor. I would've loved to take a traditional "gap year" but I had no idea that even existed, let alone was something I could do for myself.
When I finally went to college a year later, I wasn’t concerned with the “useless” core curriculum. I couldn’t care less about my art humanities course; I was ecstatic to test out of my French language requirement; and forget about natural sciences... I was a city girl -- there was nothing interesting about geology to me. In short, my year off had been so draining that I wanted to get my degree and move on with life.
The Worst College Regrets
Out of 90,000 interviews by Education Consumer Pulse, "Approximately half of all U.S. adults who pursued or completed a postsecondary degree would change at least one aspect of their education experience if they could do it all over again, including their major or field of study, the institution they attended, or the type of degree they obtained." (Source: Gallup & Strada Education Network)
51% of college graduates regret at least one of their college decisions.
36% would change their field of study.
I felt this way too when I graduated -- and still do. I felt forced to choose a life career at 19 years old, when I could barely do my taxes. I often wonder if this "regret" statistic would be lower if U.S. students took more gap years. If they had the opportunity to realize their passions.
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When I quit my day job at 27 to take a personal break and travel internationally, I learned I had much more growing to do. Growth I wasn't able to achieve before because I felt stuck. Global learning I wasn't able to embrace before because it was a world I'd never be part of. Who would've thought I'd actually see the Acropolis or visit Michelangelo's David in person? Who would've thought I'd trek through the Andes Mountains or take a slow boat along the Mekong River? Who would've thought I'd learn about war on the haunted terrain of Vietnam?
Who would've thought?
But I did it. Looking back, I see stark differences between learning without global exposure vs. learning while traveling. By taking an adult gap year (that later turned into a travel career), I realized travel was the secret ingredient in key lessons that would transform my life.
Lesson 1: Building Relationships
When you graduate and enter the working world in search of your “dream job” you realize life isn’t just about what you know, but who you know. And I did a really bad job of meeting new people in college.
Without travel: After college, I knew no one (which wasn't actually true, but felt that way at the time). I was shy, closed-off, and disengaged. It took a while to realize that it was because I wasn’t sure of myself, my skills, nor my ability to make new friends. I wasn’t sure if people wanted to connect with me. I was comfortable being alone -- which isn't a bad thing -- but had trouble building relationships because I became too comfortable. I'm sure there were trust issues there too, but let's save that for another post.
With an adult gap year: My travel experiences taught me to traverse the globe and initiate conversation with strangers. It helped me make more friends and be sociable (I’m still #TeamAmbivert, don’t worry). Communicating in countries where I didn’t speak the language helped me become a better listener, and leaving my comfort zone made me realize how much control I had over my own journey. Life is about who you know. But not for the reasons I thought: people and their stories are what make us special. Knowing their stories and connecting with people was a way to open my mind and heart to those different from me. I'm still shy and love being alone, but my adult gap year brought me out of my shell a bit more and helped me find joy in engaging with others.
Lesson 2: Discovering New Passions
Somewhere along the line, we were taught that we needed one dream and had to spend our years fighting in search for a glimmer of that dream. We were taught that it defined us. We were told, “You can’t stop now -- you’ve been working toward it for so long.” But why? Why are we forced to have one passion? Why are we taught to dream big as a child and then trained to narrow it down to a job most attainable?
Without travel: In college, I was already so stressed about school loans, healthcare, and potential bills that I had no desire to invest in experiences. It didn’t seem possible for me. I needed to find the job that would make me the most money, combine it with some hobbies and boom -- have a career. That was my formula.
I was jealous of the students who took a semester abroad. Even more jealous of how enlightened they were upon return. Those students had already caught the travel bug and were itching for their next destination. For their next bite of knowledge. They often returned to school and either delved deeper into their passions or flat out changed their major altogether -- the result of cultural exposure, I presumed.
With an adult gap year: When I finally had my chance to explore deeply at 27 years old, I found clarity. The professional fog that plagued my 20’s gave way and awakened passions I hadn’t realized were there. A passion to write, a passion to learn, and passion to grow. Dreams I’d long suppressed seeped back into my life and I found joy everywhere I turned. Perhaps I’d have a completely different college degree if I found this while in school.
Lesson 3: Facing Financial Fears
I’ve always been financially responsible… maybe even too much. My idea of financial responsibility came from watching bankruptcies close to me, as a result of credit misuse. The lessons I learned growing up were “don’t ever borrow money, don’t ever get credit, don’t ever let your partner have access to your bank account, and don’t ever trust ‘the system’.”
These lessons might sound familiar to some of you.
Without travel: Paycheck to paycheck mentality is real if you grew up poor or had a period of financial struggle in your life. So was hoarding money -- whether in a shoebox or under the mattress, you'd be surprised how many people I know who have never owned a bank account. I carried these habits with me and didn't understand the value in investing in experiences. Didn't understand that while materialism helped me feel better on a daily basis (hello, retail therapy) it never quite satisfied me for the long run. Instant gratification is quick sand.
With an adult gap year: It wasn’t until I started traveling that I realized hoarding my money wasn’t going to help me grow. I could still enjoy life and travel if I made financial decisions that were smart. I didn’t have to be afraid of credit: I was a responsible spender who could actually benefit from a credit card rewards system. I could have a different financial experience from my family and friends. Responsible spending doesn't mean life has to stop -- reap the rewards!
Is it ever too late to take a gap year?
I didn’t take a traditional gap year before/during college. If I could do it all again, it is the one thing I’d change about my experience. It would’ve helped me be more interested in class; helped me value experiences and meeting new people; and might’ve brought me closer to living my best life a bit earlier.
Or maybe it wouldn’t have.
Maybe I am here writing this article because of my experiences. Maybe getting here earlier wasn’t in the cards for me.
I took a “gap year” five years after graduating college. It wasn’t too late. That sabbatical turned into four years of exploring the world, starting a business, finding love, and yes: learning, growing, and making new friends -- all the things I thought only college could provide.
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